There is a saying that good teams don't win close games; they avoid them.
While that statement may be true in some respects, it is also unrealistic. At some point, no matter how good you are, you are going to find yourself in a close game where you will have to execute down the stretch to come away with the win. See: the 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder.
For the sixth time this postseason, the Thunder found themselves locked in a tight game in the fourth quarter. For the fifth time out of those six, they came away with the victory, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 103-100 on Saturday night in Game 4 of their conference semifinal matchup to take a commanding 3-1 series lead back to Oklahoma City for a Game 5 on Monday night.
It's funny, because, in both of the Thunder's playoff series thus far, they could very well have been down 3-1. In the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City won Games 1 and 2 in the waning moments, and it had to rally from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to win the decisive Game 4.
Then, in this series against the Lakers, the Thunder found themselves down seven with two minutes left in Game 2. They came back and won. After losing Game 3, they fell into a 13-point hole with eight minutes to go in Game 4. Again, they stormed back and emerged victorious.
What is it about this team that makes it so good in clutch situations?
Well, for one thing, Kevin Durant has been absolutely magnificent. He has hit three game-winners thus far in the postseason, doing it in Game 1 against Dallas and in Games 2 and 4 against Los Angeles, as he drained a go-ahead three-pointer with 13.7 seconds left to give Oklahoma City the lead for good on Saturday night.
So, while the San Antonio Spurs (whom I feel are the favorite to win the Western Conference) have won all but one of their seven playoff games by double-digits, the Thunder are learning how to win games by making plays late, and that could prove to be invaluable in what appears to be an inevitable conference finals faceoff between San Antonio (who holds a 3-0 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers) and Oklahoma City.
I say this because, chances are, the Spurs-Thunder series is not going to be full of blowouts. San Antonio is not going to be winning by an average of 15 points per game like it has been doing against the likes of the Utah Jazz and the Clippers. Those are likely going to be close games, and now, Oklahoma City has gained the experience it needs to win those contests.
Of course, the Spurs are well-versed in tight playoff games, with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili having won three championships together (and Duncan has won four overall), and Gregg Popovich being arguably the greatest coach in professional sports, period. Still, the fact that the Thunder have been out-executing opponents down the stretch spells great news for what should be a scintillating series between these two Western Conference juggernauts.
The question is, though, how much can Oklahoma City continue to rely on its perimeter scoring to dominate fourth quarters? The Mavericks were solid and the Lakers are obviously no small task, but neither team is the Spurs.
Can the Thunder win close games against San Antonio without a low-post presence?
If there is one thing that is going to prevent Oklahoma City from winning it all, that is it. It does not have a big man it can dump the ball into when it needs an easy bucket.
The Spurs have that in Duncan, who looks rejuvenated this year. I have been saying this about the Thunder all season. As impressive as they are, they are missing a key ingredient, and you have to wonder if and when that is going to end up hurting them.
The trio of Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden is spectacular, as all three can get to the basket, draw fouls and knock down jumpers, but playing that type of game can only get you so far. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka comprise what is the best defensive frontcourt in the game, but outside of that nice jumper Ibaka has developed, neither represent viable options offensively, particularly late in the game.
That being said, the experience that Oklahoma City has gotten over the course of these first two rounds of this postseason is huge, and it will undoubtedly help them against the Spurs.